The third-place winner of our Summer 2023 National Teen Storyteller Contest. We invited young writers to share a story responding to the theme of Stereotypes. This contest is part of our 2023 NEA Big Read initiative, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in celebration of Charles Yu's novel, Interior Chinatown.
“Hey, Ariana, what’s this?” James Gilbert-Kelley—Ariana Zhou’s boyfriend—asks for the upteenth time, this time holding up a bright red soda can with a cartoonish smiling toddler plastered in front, before imitating the graphic’s wide-eyed expression to perfection.
Ariana doubles over with laughter and snatches the can from him. “Don’t drink it, it’s probably more preservative and sweetening than water.”
The middle-aged owner of the mom-and-pop Chinese supermarket rolls his eyes from the cash register, probably wondering why a silly white teenager he’d never seen before was marveling at aisles of dried wood ear and laoganma chili oil.
“Man, I’m so glad junior year is over,” James says. “What kind of school finishes near the end of June? Dunno how I could’ve made it without you, honestly—hey, Ariana, is this a fruit?”
James was now looking at a bag of lychees.
“You’re adorable.” Ariana pokes him. “They’re lychees—they look all grubby on the outside, but it’s a ball of milky flesh on the inside. Stop jumping around, you have my car keys in your pocket.”
At the cash register, Ariana places a bag of shrimp chips, a bottle of green tea, and a few rolls of haw flakes that James said looked like pieces of dynamite, or fireworks. The store owner asks her a question in Mandarin while scanning the items, and Ariana thinks for a minute before responding hesitatingly, haltingly in the same language.
“Hey, you didn’t say that you couldn’t speak Chinese,” James says.
“I’m second-generation, James.” The comment rankled. “I was born here.”
“Sorry, babe. What’s your Chinese name anyways?”
Ariana pays, grabs the grocery bags, and pushes the door open before she responds. “Yan,” she says stiffly.
“It must be hard, not speaking too much Chinese,” James says suddenly, and swings an arm around Ariana’s shoulder as they walk out the door. “I mean, it’s the language your parents speak, isn’t it?”
Ariana looks at James with incredulity and realizes he is staring at her with a sort of syrupy, deliberate sympathy. Pity, even. “Like, have you ever not felt Chinese enough? That’s a diasporic thing, right?”
“James,” Ariana starts to say. “James, this is so stupid—”
James squeezes Ariana’s shoulder even tighter. “You’re so beautiful, Yan,” he whispers, tracing a finger over her cheek with his free hand. “Your skin is so white… and soft… like a lychee.”
Ariana’s car is so far away, at the opposite end of the parking lot, her keys in James’s pocket. Slowly but surely, he pulls them out and, with a wink, throws them as hard as he can away from her.
“Don’t worry,” she hears James’s muffled voice as if it were far, far away even as his mouth forces itself into hers, his body heaving like a lead-weighted trapdoor. “You’ll always be perfectly Chinese enough for me.”
It takes Ariana ten minutes to open her eyes and put on her glasses. It’s completely dark outside, and rain is lashing against her bedroom window, but the chandelier above her face is as harshly bright as when she fell asleep in the early morning.
“Ariana? Come down and eat something.”
Still in pajamas, she walks down the stairs and then immediately splays on the couch.
The floor is cold. Her mother sets a bowl of fruit down on the tea table. “I just ran to the store today,” she says. Filled with appreciation, Ariana sits up.
It’s a bowl of lychees.
She inadvertently catches her reflection through the black TV screen and pulls her pajama collar over a lingering patch of blue and purple.
Because her mother is watching, Ariana takes a lychee and stabs her thumb into the thick, bumpy skin, peeling off a large chunk. As the clear, sticky juice spurts out from inside the fruit, her hands slip on the skin’s exposed edge, which cuts a jagged opening along her index finger.
“Oh, my baby,” Ariana’s mother sighs, then gets up to look for the chronically misplaced band-aids in the house.
Ariana blankly takes in her bloodied hands and then looks out the backyard window. The rain has stopped, the sky murky and wet, and in its place, the first red, white, and blue fireworks are cutting across the darkness.
Oh, Ariana thinks. It must be the Fourth of July. Although the days stopped having numbers a while ago.
As the fireworks explode into a burst of dripping lights, Ariana buries her face in her hands. Everything hurts. The lychee on the tea table is still halfway peeled and dribbling juice. Puddles had covered the uneven patio floor outside, and in the watery reflection the streaks of sparks look like tiny little fires tearing holes into the pavement, the puncturing sound of a million explosions booming like a voice.